The Sonoma County Library has tracked a steady shift from physical to digital use over the past few years. “Every year, we see more and more patrons checking out electronic books, streaming movies, tracing their family tree or conducting research,” said Ann Hammond, Sonoma County Library Director. “Some of our most loyal and active patrons rarely come into a branch.”
In fact, up until recently, the digital library was almost as busy as the physical library. For example, while Sonoma County Library patrons checked out 2.9 million physical items in the fiscal year ending in June 2019 (the most recent state figures), the library recorded 2.4 million website visits and 829,121 instances of electronic usage of materials.
That all changed March 14, when all Sonoma County Library branches closed, in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the county’s shelter-in-place order. Since then, as physical circulation has come to a halt, digital circulation is skyrocketing.
OverDrive, a popular way to check out electronic books and audiobooks through the library, had a 356 percent increase in usage in the 23 days from March 17 to April 8. In the same time period, the library’s Hoopla platform, which offers books, films, TV, music, comics and more, had a 786 percent increase.
Kanopy, a resource for classic films and documentaries, had a 298 percent increase, and RBDigital, an easy way to read thousands of current issues and back issues of magazines, topped all Sonoma County Library digital resources with a 2,434 percent increase in use.
Library patrons are discovering other digital resources as well, learning languages with Mango, brushing up on software skills with Lynda, deciding what home appliance to purchase with Consumer Reports, researching car repairs with Chilton, looking up ancestors on Ancestry.com, or reading the New York Times – all free with a library card.
“We don’t see this shift as temporary,” Hammond said, reflecting on what to expect when library branches reopen. “There is no substitute for a one-on-one conversation with a friendly librarian, or attending a library event, or bringing your child to a story time, but a lot of our patrons are discovering how easy it is to try the digital option and we’ll be prepared to keep supporting them. We’ve already added or expanded digital resources, and we will keep looking for ways to serve our community, in person or online.”
But, not everyone has reliable internet access. That worries Hammond, a lot. “We do so much to help bridge the digital divide,” she said. “We have free high speed WiFi in our branches, and it’s still on during the closures so people can access it from outside when the building structure permits. We also have more than 500 WiFi hotspots and more than 100 Chromebooks in circulation, but it’s not nearly enough.”
Hammond and her staff are busy adapting to the temporary closures, and she knows they’ll be busy again when branches reopen, but she vows not to forget about the people who are left out because they can’t afford broadband. “This is a wake-up call for every library in America,” said Hammond. “We can’t close the digital divide by ourselves, but we intend to be loud and persistent voices in finding a solution.”